'Convenient scapegoat': PM Imran says Pakistan should not be blamed for Afghan war's outcome

Published September 27, 2021
Prime Minister Imran Khan says the world should use humanitarian and development assistance as a leverage against the Taliban. — AP/File
Prime Minister Imran Khan says the world should use humanitarian and development assistance as a leverage against the Taliban. — AP/File

Prime Minister Imran Khan has said that Pakistan must not be blamed for the outcome of the war in Afghanistan and for the losses of the United States, stressing on setting eyes on the future to avoid another conflict instead of continuing with a blame game.

“Today, with Afghanistan at another crossroads, we must look to the future to prevent another violent conflict in that country rather than perpetuating the blame game of the past,” he wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post on Monday.

The premier emphasised that Pakistan "surely" could not be blamed for the fact that “300,000-plus well-trained and equipped Afghan security forces saw no reason to fight the lightly armed Taliban”.

The underlying problem, he said, was an Afghan government structure lacking legitimacy in the eyes of the average Afghan.

Also read: US spent $290m every day in Afghanistan for 20 years

He also expressed “surprise” over the recent Congressional hearings on Afghanistan, where “no mention was made of Pakistan’s sacrifices as a US ally in the war on terror for over two decades”.

“Instead, we were blamed for America’s loss,” he added.

Prime Minister Imran recalled that since 2001, he had repeatedly warned that the Afghan war was "unwinnable" and pointed out that given their history, the Afghans would never accept a protracted foreign military presence.

Even an outsider including Pakistan could not change this reality, he said.

Imran said "unfortunately", successive governments in Pakistan following 9/11 sought to please the US instead of pointing out the error in a military-dominated approach.

“Desperate for global relevance and domestic legitimacy, Pakistan’s military dictator Pervez Musharraf agreed to every American demand for military support after 9/11. This cost Pakistan, and the US, dearly,” he said.

The premier said the people the US had asked Pakistan to target included the groups trained jointly by the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

“Back then, the Afghans were hailed as freedom fighters performing a sacred duty. President Reagan even entertained the mujahideen at the White House,” he wrote.

He pointed out that after the Soviets' defeat, the US abandoned Afghanistan and sanctioned Pakistan, leaving behind more than five million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and a bloody civil war in Afghanistan.

“From this security vacuum emerged the Taliban, many born and educated in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan,” he said.

Post 9/11, he continued, the US needed Pakistan again, “but this time against the very actors we had jointly supported to fight foreign occupation”.

He said the mujahideens of the past were declared terrorists overnight, while militant groups declared a war against the Pakistani state after Pakistan supported the US war on terror.

Prime Minister Imran said Gen Musharraf offered Washington logistics and airbases, allowed a CIA footprint in Pakistan and even turned a blind eye to American drones bombing Pakistanis on their soil.

“For the first time ever, our army swept into the semi-autonomous tribal areas on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, which had earlier been used as the staging ground for the anti-Soviet jihad,” he recalled.

He said for the locals, the US was an “occupier” of Afghanistan just like the Soviets, deserving of the same treatment.

As Pakistan was now America’s collaborator, “we too were deemed guilty and attacked,” he said.

“This was made much worse by over 450 US drone strikes on our territory, making us the only country in history to be so bombed by an ally,” he added. “These strikes caused immense civilian casualties, riling up anti-American (and anti-Pakistan Army) sentiment further.”

He recounted the suffering in Pakistan after it joined the Afghan war.

“The die was cast,” the premier said. “Between 2006 and 2015, nearly 50 militant groups declared jihad on the Pakistani state, conducting over 16,000 terrorist attacks on us.”

Pakistan suffered over 80,000 casualties and lost over $150 billion in the economy, besides driving 3.5 million citizens from their homes, he added.

Imran said the militants escaping the Pakistani counter-terrorism efforts entered Afghanistan and were then supported and financed by Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies.

“Pakistan had to fight for its survival,” he wrote, quoting a former CIA station chief in Kabul in this regard who wrote in 2009 that the country was “beginning to crack under the relentless pressure directly exerted by the US”.

Yet the US continued to ask Pakistan to “do more” for the war in Afghanistan, he said.

The prime minister recalled that a year earlier, in 2008, he met then-senators Joe Biden, John Kerry and Harry Reid, among others, to explain this dangerous dynamic and stressed the futility of continuing a military campaign in Afghanistan.

Even so, political expediency prevailed in Islamabad throughout the post-9/11 period, he said.

He said former president Asif Ali Zardari — whom he termed “undoubtedly the most corrupt man to have led the country” — told the Americans to continue targeting Pakistanis because “collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.”

Nawaz Sharif, the next prime minister, “was no different”, he added.

Imran said while Pakistan defeated the terrorist onslaught completely by 2016, the Afghan situation continued to deteriorate.

Explaining the “difference” in the outcomes of the two countries, he said “Pakistan had a disciplined army and intelligence agency, both of which enjoyed popular support.”

In Afghanistan, meanwhile, the lack of legitimacy for an outsider’s protracted war was compounded by a corrupt and inept Afghan government, seen as a puppet regime without credibility, especially by rural Afghans.

“Tragically, instead of facing this reality, the Afghan and Western governments created a convenient scapegoat by blaming Pakistan, wrongly accusing us of providing safe havens to the Taliban and allowing their free movement across our border,” the prime minister said.

He said in order to satisfy Kabul, Pakistan offered a joint border-visibility mechanism, suggested biometric border controls, advocated fencing the border, and other measures.

“Each idea was rejected,” he said, noting that Pakistan had now fenced the border largely "on our own".

“Instead, the Afghan government intensified the ‘blame Pakistan’ narrative, aided by the Indian-run fake news networks operating hundreds of propaganda outlets in multiple countries.”

He emphasised that a more realistic approach would have been “to negotiate with the Taliban much earlier”, avoiding the embarrassment of the collapse of the Afghan army and the Ashraf Ghani government.

He said the right thing for the world now was to engage with the new Afghan government to ensure peace and stability.

The premier noted that the international community desired the inclusion of major ethnic groups in the Afghan government, respect for the rights of all Afghans, and commitments that the Afghan soil would never again be used for terrorism against any country.

Editorial: Pakistan should not press for Taliban govt's recognition if they refuse to bend to human rights demands

“Taliban leaders will have greater reason and ability to stick to their promises if they are assured of the consistent humanitarian and development assistance they need to run the government effectively,” he argued.

Providing such incentives, he said, would also give the outside world additional leverage to continue persuading the Taliban to honour their commitments.

“If we do this right, we could achieve what the Doha peace process aimed at all along: an Afghanistan that is no longer a threat to the world, where Afghans can finally dream of peace after four decades of conflict,” he said.

Otherwise, he said, abandoning Afghanistan as tried before would “inevitably lead to a meltdown”.

“Chaos, mass migration and a revived threat of international terror will be natural corollaries. Avoiding this must surely be our global imperative,” he added.

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